Sears in Illinois began as catalog, became a department store, and ends in a suburban shopping mall

Sears has come to the end of the retail road in Illinois at Woodfield Mall:

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The last Sears department store in Illinois, which closes Sunday in the Woodfield Mall nearly a century after the retailer opened its first store ever in the Merchandise building, looks very, very…beige right now, in its final hours. Like beige on beige. Like the color of back-to-school Toughskins in 1974, the color of your uncle’s Corolla in 1982 and the color of linoleum at the DMV in any decade.

It opened the same day that Woodfield — named for Sears executive Robert Wood and department store magnate Marshall Field — opened in 1971. It was the largest Sears then, boasting 416,000 square feet of sales floor. From the looks of it in late 2021, it’s hard to imagine anything changed in 50 years…

At its peak, Sears, once the largest retailer in the country, had 3,000 locations, so naturally this Woodfield store is far from alone. Also dead after Sunday are Sears department stores in Pasadena, California; Maui, Hawaii; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Long Island recently lost its last Sears department store; Brooklyn loses its last Sears on Thanksgiving Eve.

Indeed, seeing a Sears department store still serve as the anchor for a large mall right now is like a window into just how stormy and unmoored from the 21st century the American shopping mall has become. Sears sits at the south end of Woodfield, while JC Penny is at the northern end; Macy’s and Nordstroms occupy port and starboard sides.

There is a lot that could be lamented here (and is suggested in the piece): the experiences of many shoppers and employees, the connection of Sears and Chicago, bustling shopping areas now languishing, memories of earlier eras.

I find it interesting that the last Sears department store in Illinois closes in a shopping mall. And this is not just any mall: this is Woodfield, one of the largest in the United States, center of the fast-growing edge city Schaumburg. Department stores hit their stride in central business districts in the United States where rapid urbanization helped fuel consumer activity. But, the geography of business shifted as the population shifted to the suburbs. Department stores continued but now as anchors for a full range inside shopping experience primarily accessible by car. While suburbs are still growing, shopping malls are struggling and the fate of their department stores have both contributed to this decline and been affected by it.

The Internet may have hastened the decline of department stores but I wonder how much the move to the suburbs already weakened them. Stores need shoppers and it makes sense to move department stores closer to those shoppers (and other consumption opportunities). At the same time, the department store in a mall is different than the multiple floor downtown department store. Thinking along the same lines, how different are local stores, Sears, Walmart, and Amazon over time – which is the bigger jump and which factors mattered the most for the shift?

Thinking ahead, could the experience be recreated by putting a new Amazon store in the same spot? The location and infrastructure of the current setting is hard to beat. Shopping in person is still an important experience for many people even with Internet sales.

The boom and bust RV cycles of Elkhart

The latest rankings in the Emerging Housing Markets Index has Elkhart, Indiana at the top of the list:

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Small U.S. cities dominated The Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index in the third quarter, as high housing costs and remote-work opportunities drive many home buyers to seek out more living and outdoor space…

Elkhart, Ind., which bills itself as the RV capital of the world because its region is the country’s leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles, topped the housing index this quarter, followed by Rapid City, S.D., Topeka, Kan., Raleigh, N.C., and Jefferson City, Mo…

The recreational-vehicle industry is a major player in Elkhart’s economy. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred more RV demand, as households wanted to travel while keeping their distance from others. Wholesale RV shipments in the first eight months of 2021 rose 53.8% from the same period in 2020, according to the RV Industry Association…

The median home-sale price in Elkhart County rose 12.3% in August from a year earlier to $209,900, according to the Indiana Association of Realtors. There were 163 homes for sale that month, down from 220 a year earlier.

I am glad that Elkhart appears to be doing well at the moment. Having lived nearby for five years, the area has a lot to offer and economic development would be welcomed.

At the same time, it was not so long ago that Elkhart faced a difficult time. When the economy is not doing so well, such as in the late 2000s with a burst housing bubble, fewer people had money for RVs. Demand shrunk. Jobs disappeared. Before that, this area and South Bend were home to numerous manufacturers who went out of business or left. The homes have been cheaper here for a long time because few people want to move in.

It is good that this community in the Rust Belt at least has the opportunity to at times benefit from upticks in RV sales. Such industries and jobs could leave completely. But, having so many fates tied to one industry that can go up and down is trying in the long run. Numerous communities in the United States have looked to diversify their economic base – see the recent rush to add tech companies to their portfolios – even as they might have local economies based around a few companies or a few sectors. RVs may sell well one day and then conditions change and demand drops or new technology moves in. May Elkhart take some of this positive momentum and add to lineup of industries and services.

Using capitalist means, such as TV shows and consumer goods, to critique capitalism

Capitalism is the economic system of the United States and many other parts of the world. Can actors use capitalist means to critique capitalism? Two recent examples.

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First, television shows, films, and cultural products more broadly often contain critiques of capitalist systems and outcomes. For example, one writer highlights how this happens with the popular series Squid Games:

One of the key things wealth can buy is the ability to make decisions and change your circumstances. Money gives you options and choices. For everyone else in the vicinity of Just Getting By (or worse), choice is often little more than an illusion. Most of us fall into the latter category and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Netflix Korean series “Squid Game” has become such a global phenomenon since premiering last month, with its brutal critique of capitalist imperatives and the traps therein…

Because is it really a choice — such a slippery word — when you’re this desperate? Is it really a choice when the systems we live by are put in place by the rich and powerful to deliberately create that desperation? Put another way: Scarcity in modern life is as manufactured as the life-or-death scenarios in “Squid Game.”

In the show’s view, we are powerless to band together, to refuse to play along or create a different reality. When pushed to the brink, we become selfish or scared or just beaten down. And ultimately, we turn on one another. Another clear thematic through-line: It is men who run and enforce these games, and it is men who watch them from afar as spectators numb to (or thrilled by) the suffering at hand…

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the real-world embodiment of the show’s exploitative VIPs — tweeted congratulations to Netflix’s head honchos before adding: “And I can’t wait to watch the show”? Nothing bizarre or surreal about that, nope, nope, nope. Is this the part where I also mention that Netflix and Amazon are among the studios playing hardball with the union for TV and film crews in the U.S. on issues like livable wages, reasonable work hours and meal breaks? Everything is fine, pay no mind to all the contradictions we live with every day!

So wealthy studios, streaming services, and individuals put together and promote a series critiquing capitalism and there is plenty of money to be made off of this.

Second, consumers are regularly asked to purchase items or experiences that funnel money to worthwhile charities and causes. This could be celebrity-backed lines that donate a portion of the price to charity, religious organizations or civic groups selling items, or companies donating money through purchases. All of this assumes that purchases will be made and that consumers will want to purchase products or experiences that give back as opposed to ones just sold for profit. Consuming is the way to give, as opposed to just giving without the need for consumption.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that anything can be made into a commodity. This includes items needed for daily survival to luxury goods to experiences to things that once were “sacred.” If anything can be bought and sold, including objects that critique the very system under which they are bought and sold, is there hope of a different reality?

Consumerism is also a powerful force. Whether consuming TV shows – binge-watching a critique of capitalism? – or consumer goods, the consumer is in a particular position of taking things in. I like the distinction I have heard from multiple sources over the last decade or so: there is a difference between being a consumer and a citizen. The first primarily takes while the second contains the ideas of duties, responsibilities, and obligations alongside personal or collective benefits.

What does it mean if the suburb of Naperville is the first US community to have two Amazon Fresh locations?

Signs point to a second Amazon Fresh store in Naperville and if it comes to reality, the suburb will be the only community in the country with two locations.

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All signs point to a second Amazon Fresh grocery store opening soon in Naperville.

While city officials haven’t been notified of definitive plans for the site at 1351 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche said Amazon Fresh recently applied for a liquor license at the location. An opening date is unknown, but the building is currently being renovated and looks similar to the city’s other Amazon Fresh location on Route 59.

Naperville would become the first city in the country with two Amazon Fresh grocery stores…

According to Amazon’s website, there are only four Amazon Fresh locations in Illinois. In addition to Naperville, there are stores in Bloomingdale, Oak Lawn and Schaumburg.

Naperville may not be the only two store location for long and being the first means something. What is so attractive about Naperville as a location? Here are a few possible reasons:

-It is a wealthy and large community: over 148,000 residents with a median household income of nearly $126,000 (both 2019 estimates). This adds up to a lot of potential customers. Naperville is known for high white-collar jobs and tech jobs. These could also provide a good customer base.

-Naperville as a community has received many accolades. It has a high quality of life, high performing schools, and a vibrant downtown. It is a high status community and companies like to associate with such communities.

-Naperville is in favor of business and growth. This dates back decades with pro-growth decisions in the postwar era, includes tax incentives for corporations, and a desire to improve the streetscape along Ogden Avenue, a major roadway.

-Naperville is outside Chicago and in the Midwest, “normal America” locations for testing new concepts and ideas.

Put this all together and Amazon finds it worthwhile to go forward with two locations in Naperville.

Amazon rediscovering department stores?

Amazon’s online empire is vast but it is also expanding its brick and mortar operations with plans to open department stores:

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What solves all of these problems—the high return rates, the cost-prohibitive last-mile freight, the logistics nightmares, the buyer frustration, and the monumental volume of consumer waste it all sends to landfills—on some level? Stores. Going to a store. In America especially, this notion was obvious for more than a century. Department stores were actually such a good idea, something that people like so much and that works so well, that the Gilded Age barons who invented them used their stores to create middle-class identity from near whole cloth and keep it going for generations.

Amazon helped kill most of those stores, but that has only created a vacuum into which more Amazon products and services are ready to be inserted. If Silicon Valley has taught us anything in the past two decades, it’s that if you have a bottomless pit of money, you can remake an industry in your image. You can acquire customers so quickly that they might not realize they don’t totally love everything you’re doing, and you can embed yourself in their lives in ways that would be tangled and inconvenient to remove, largely by snuffing out competition. Which leaves the retail industry in a precarious position: Amazon, and maybe a handful of its largest competitors, will go about deciding how you get to buy the things you need, with very little meaningful pushback. They’ll set prices, they’ll set labor conditions, and they’ll decide which things are too inefficient for you to buy online. Apparently, those things will go into a store.

Amazon and the companies like it invent the solutions to the problems they created, and you pay for them to be implemented. At least in some cases, physical stores may ultimately win out. You can try on your new pants, sit on your new couch, and leave with the thing you wanted immediately, which, it should be noted, is considerably faster than two-day delivery. Yes, you have to go to the store, but doing so will likely obviate the need for you to go to the post office—the dreaded post office—next week. Work smarter, not harder. It’s what Amazon would do.

A physical location offers certain conveniences. But, do not discount the embodied experience of shopping compared to online shopping. In a building, you can:

  1. See and possibly touch the item you want to purchase. This may matter more for some consumer goods than others.
  2. Browse and bump into things – literally. You can end up following rabbit trails online but this is different than seeing something unexpected or just look around.
  3. Be around other shoppers and enjoy the atmosphere. I wrote about this at Christmas; part of the fun is being around people and activity.
  4. Physical spaces can project status and emotions in ways that online portals cannot. The size and layout of department stores can impress and invoke particular feelings. Would you rather think about a soulless and endless Amazon warehouse or a fashionable and high-tech store?

Of course, some of these things can go awry. The item might not be in stock, you do not find what you are looking for, you have negative experiences with other patrons, and the experience is off-putting rather than exciting. But, Amazon might be at the point where they can offer compelling experiences in both realms in ways that others could not.

Is Visa a network more than a credit card?

Visa has a new campaign where they say they are a network. Here is what it looks like on their front page yesterday:

What is a social network? Here is how one sociology source talks about social network analysis:

Social network analysis is a way of conceptualizing, describing, and modeling society as sets of people or groups linked to one another by specific relationships, whether these relationships are as tangible as exchange networks or as intangible as perceptions of each other.

Visa argues that they connect people. Because people can use Visa at a wide range of stores, restaurants, and other settings, this brings people together. Imagine all of these organizations as different nodes in a network and Visa provides the connecting link. Without Visa, they would not connect.

Yet, is the social network sustained by Visa or used by Visa? Now that the network exists, Visa claims they are the network but similar things could be said for Mastercard or paper money. Without Visa, would many of these actors still connect, perhaps through other economic means?

It would be interesting to know whether and/or this economic network facilitates other kinds of network interactions. Does Visa use lead to new social networks? Is this not just about economic exchange but also exchange of information, experiences, and culture? This gets at larger processes, like globalization, that depend on familiar economic means across places.

The value of highlighting Starbucks, since 1971

In a Starbucks TV commercial, I noticed the company notes it was founded in 1971. Here is a logo from their website that highlights 50 years of business:

Starbucks.com

The company’s website highlights their heritage:

Our story begins in 1971 along the cobblestone streets of Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market. It was here where Starbucks opened its first store, offering fresh-roasted coffee beans, tea and spices from around the world for our customers to take home. Our name was inspired by the classic tale, “Moby-Dick,” evoking the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders.

Ten years later, a young New Yorker named Howard Schultz would walk through these doors and become captivated with Starbucks coffee from his first sip. After joining the company in 1982, a different cobblestone road would lead him to another discovery. It was on a trip to Milan in 1983 that Howard first experienced Italy’s coffeehouses, and he returned to Seattle inspired to bring the warmth and artistry of its coffee culture to Starbucks. By 1987, we swapped our brown aprons for green ones and embarked on our next chapter as a coffeehouse.

Starbucks would soon expand to Chicago and Vancouver, Canada and then on to California, Washington, D.C. and New York. By 1996, we would cross the Pacific to open our first store in Japan, followed by Europe in 1998 and China in 1999. Over the next two decades, we would grow to welcome millions of customers each week and become a part of the fabric of tens of thousands of neighborhoods all around the world. In everything we do, we are always dedicated to Our Mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time

Fifty years is likely a safe point to highlight a founding date as it is a nice round number, a half century. Sure, 49 or 51 years gets at the same idea but it does not have the gravity of 50. Yet, I could imagine two sides to whether promoting this date is helpful.

On one side, fifty years is a long time. Many businesses do not make it this far. Even fewer companies are so long for so many years. Highlighting the date implies permanence, tradition, stability. Starbucks is not just a passing trend; they are good at what they do, they have been around five decades, and hope to be around for many more.

On the other side, Americans tend to like upstarts and novelty. Does fifty years imply old age and lack of innovation? Starbucks is established while other successful companies are offering new models and products. There are Starbucks locations everywhere but once companies like Sears or Woolworths also thrived.

Even as the company celebrates 50 years, companies are not permanent. Perhaps there is a time when fast food in general no longer exists or people can get similar food products at home. Or, Starbucks does something internally that causes issues. Or who knows what. Does it reach 75 years or 100 years, other round milestones worth celebrating? It is hard to know now; Starbucks will keep going until it doesn’t.

The rise of social media managers

More companies and organizations now have social media managers:

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Some 15 years after Facebook and Twitter opened their platforms to the public, social media is an established, mainstream career field. There are academic programs dedicated to its practice. Workers say it’s sometimes still treated as a job for rookies, both through pay grades and interpersonal dynamics from those who think it’s just not that serious. But that’s changing: Those in the field see more bargaining power and more full-time roles than ever before.

Many social-media specific jobs still offer lower salaries than comparable fields like marketing. The average annual salary for marketing managers is $102,496 and $109,607 for marketing directors on Glassdoor, according to a spokesperson for the jobs website. Meanwhile, the average annual salary is $67,892 for social-media directors and $47,908 for social-media assistants…

But Ms. Visconti notes that the field has become more professionalized in recent years. When she got her undergraduate degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2015, she says, “It definitely wasn’t seen as a career path.” Today, following work for clients including Hyatt and Puma, she believes she can dedicate her whole career to social media. “What I love about it is that it’s the way to connect most directly with consumers,” she says…

“In the beginning, it was all about the need for businesses to create content specifically for social media, which was an insight that I had somewhat early,” he says. “Now it’s much more about understanding how algorithms work, and I just don’t understand things like what time of day to publish a TikTok video on a deep level.”

My colleague Peter Mundey and I found similar things in our 2019 study “Emerging SNS Use: The Importance of Social Network Sites for Older American Emerging Adults.” These 23 to 28 year olds found that social media could be part of their work life. We found: “Mentions of job-related activities from the Wave 4 respondents included corresponding with potential employers via Facebook, making professional connections through LinkedIn and showing work-related activities and progress through other SNS platforms, helping firms promote themselves via social media and responding to other users, and even working for social media companies.” We found that this work was not necessarily for everyone, even if older emerging adults were regular social media participants.

There could also be an interesting study in here about the development of a new career, role, and/or industry. Marketing, for example, is well known and emerged over decades in the twentieth century. Social media manager is new, utilizes newer technology, is more familiar to younger members of the workforce, and is developing its own professionalization processes. Will it firmly established in terms of status, pay, and training within a decade or two and how will that happen?

Call [area code]-AWESOME for your needs

Certain numbers stick out in advertising. The Empire carpet jingle, 1-877-CARS-FOR-KIDS, and one local company I saw recently:

The phone number 630-293-7663 – or 630-AWESOME – works in two ways. First, it fits with the company name A.W.E. which stands for Air, Water, and Energy. Second, what company would not want to be known as awesome? Whether fitting the definition for inspiring awe or remarkable, this number will get remembered. All it needs now is a jingle that sticks in your head…

If you too want to make cool words out of phone numbers, here is a phone number to word generator.

Brick and mortar success in selling chickens and other farming supplies to new “ruralpolitans”

The shift of Americans from cities to suburbs and rural areas helped boost the fortunes of retailer Tractor Supply:

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Such gangbusters growth is unlikely to continue, with the pandemic easing. But the rush to the country that underpins it is less an anomaly than a speeding up of a long-tern trend, as more people – notably millennials yearning to become homeowners – look to adopt quasi-rural lifestyles. Being priced out of urban living is one driving factor; interest in healthier and more sustainable diets, including homegrown vegetables and home-harvested eggs, is another. Whatever is motivating them, Tractor Supply sees an opportunity in these “ruralpolitans” – and the COVID-driven shift toward remote work will help sustain their numbers.

Lawton, who became CEO in early 2020 after two years as the No. 2 at Macy’s, says millennials’ willingness to move farther from city centers is a “game changer”: “We seeing a new kind of shopper in our stores,” he tells Fortune. Now Tractor Supply is adapting to cater to both its established customer base and these younger space-seekers, following a strategic road map with the folksy title “Life Out Here.”…

The fast-growing cohort that Tractor Supply is cultivating, she says, are “beginning to learn how to garden. They have this passion for poultry.” Call them the “country suburban” customers.

The company is strategic about where it meets these customers. Its stores are almost all located in mid-size or small towns – communities that are often too small to support a Home Depot, Petco, or Walmart.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit some businesses very hard while others, like Tractor Supply, have found opportunities. From the sound of this article, they had locations in numerous places that received new residents during COVID-19 and had the right mix of products and service that appealed to them.

I wonder about the class dynamics of all of this. How do the new “ruralpolitans” who want to raise chickens or have a small farm and have moved from the city compare to the other shoppers at Tractor Supply or to long-term residents in the community?

Another question to ask is whether these newer residents with these interests in food and farming are in it for the long haul or not. On one hand, if remote work is more viable than ever, perhaps people will stay in smaller communities outside cities and pursue this. On the other hand, if companies ask more workers to return or if small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry is not appealing in the long run, this may be more of a flash in the pan. Industry-wide shifts in agriculture could have an impact as well.

Finally, the move to a more rural life has implications for private lives and community life. Many Americans say they like the idea of living in a small town but this is different than actually living in one. What is the tipping point where an influx of new residents changes the character of the community (or is change somewhat inevitable)? How involved will these new residents be in local organizations, religious congregations, local government, and in local social affairs?